From education to employment

We Exclusively Talk To Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister For Education

With only a little more than a week to go before the nation goes to the polls and casts their vote for the next Government, the politicians have little time remaining to clearly state their policies to the electorate. As this final stage of the campaigning begins, the discussion often returns to the core issues of expenditure on, the successful maintenance of, expansion of and renovation of public services. In this debate it is plain for all to see that education is vitally important for the future success of both the political parties and the national economy and society.

Last week, FE News was able to obtain an interview with the Right Hon. Mark Hoban MP, Shadow Minister for Further and Higher Education for the Conservative Party, in which he clarified his party’s manifesto statements regarding Further Education. On Monday evening, we were fortunate enough to interview the Right Hon. Phil Willis MP, the Liberal Democrat’s Shadow Minister for Education, to give him an equal opportunity to further elaborate on his party’s statements.

Mr. Willis was frank and forthright in his answers to the questions raised, taking this opportunity to stress his support for and interest in Further Education, and its importance for the future success of the country. He recognized that this sector within the larger remit of the Department of Education and Skills has been somewhat neglected both by politicians and by the broader media in the buildup to the election, informing the interviewer that this was in fact the first interview he had given on the subject of FE. He states that, should he be invited to join the Cabinet as Minister for Education, he would have a firm and clear set of policies and programmes to put in place, which would set him apart from his rivals in other political parties.

Three Strands of Further Education

Mr. Willis set forth the three strands of the Liberal Democrat’s position on Further Education. The first, significantly, is that they would be “100 % committed” to the findings of the Tomlinson Report, which he had previously described as presenting “an incredible opportunity to end the divide between academic and vocational education” and the rejection of which by the government was in his words, “a bitter blow”. They would ensure that FE enjoyed parity with schools in terms of funding, with the 14 ““ 19 proposals in the Tomlinson Report fully implemented and the emphasis on an overreaching diploma qualification to remove the stigma that is still sometimes attached to a vocational qualification. He points out that, in the 21st Century, it is old fashioned and out of date to view vocational education and qualifications as the lower end of the educational league; he stated that vocational education under the Liberal Democrats would assure a high level of literacy, numeracy and training.

The second strand is the development and funding commitments which are set forth in their manifesto, which he has assured are completely costed and practical. Mr. Willis recognized that some movement in the right direction had been achieved by the government, and had words of praise for the work of the AoC and associated organisations for their work in the preceding months in raising the funding crisis within the FE sector. However, he stresses that the government has taken a too intrusive role in many aspects of the administration, and says that more local involvement is necessary for any truly successful development programme.

Mr. Willis referred to a speech he gave to the Association of Colleges recently, in which he set out a far more accountable system for investment and development. The Liberal Democrat government would merge the development of “Colleges for the Future” with the “Building Schools for the Future” programme, and would allow individual areas to focus the funding where it was most needed. This, he feels, would allow for increases in funding for FE in a targeted fashion, suiting local demands. He accepted that private investment in FE was necessary and desirable, and pointed out that if adequate resources are not in place it will be very difficult to persuade private companies to put their own money into a project.

Quangos To Be Merged

Mr. Willis also commented on the future of the current inspection and regulatory authorities. As with the Conservatives, he recognizes that improvements are necessary in the Learning Skills Council, the Adult Learning Inspectorate, Connexions and OFSTED. However, unlike the Conservative’s vague promise of a “light touch inspection regime”, Mr. Willis was somewhat more forthcoming with details. His party proposes to replace both the ALI and OFSTED, placing their responsibilities within the remit of the Audit Commission, already possessed with a good reputation and the knowledge for the task. He returned to the theme of greater local autonomy and responsibility, placing a greater emphasis on individual schools and colleges to innovate and expand within the new framework.

When the discussion turned to the future of the Learning and Skills Council and the Connexions service, Mr. Willis once again demonstrated a constructive approach to an area that he feels needs some reform. He praised the new Chief Executive of the LSC for making significant strides in reforming the service, and stated that his policy would be the closure of the centre of the LSC, merging it with the Regional Development Agency and creating regional centres. He expressed misgiving as to the Connexions service, but expressed his commitment to the provision of adequate support and advice for young people and adults. As with the LSC, he recognized that yet another wholesale restructuring of the sector would be disruptive and counterproductive.

The third Liberal Democrat commitment made is that of their full support for developing new programmes of study, and promising to support a universal level 2. They would actively pursue a similar guarantee for Level 3 and would continue to expand their development of new study programmes. They are also, as is widely known, promising to implement free tuition up to and including undergraduate level for both vocational and academic education. With regards to adult education provision, however, he stated that the issue must be tackled on a more local and individual level; the retraining and expansion of the skill sets of workers must be promoted, but he believes that this should not be the responsibility of central government. Overall, however, he returned to his central theme; the vital importance of FE can only be recognized, maintained and expanded through reform, not removal.

Jethro Marsh

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